Some economists, policy-makers, and politicians are calling for the revival of the Biblical principle of the Jubilee, which offered a mechanism for cancelling everyone’s financial debts.
Economist Michael Hudson has written a book on the subject: And Forgive Them Their Debts: Lending, Foreclosure, and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year.
The Levitical Law required that every 50 years, slaves would be freed and the land and other property that had been assigned to a particular family would, if it had been sold, revert to its original owners. There is no mention, as such, of debt, but scholars say that was included. “And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan” (Leviticus 25:10). (See the rest of Leviticus 25 for details about the Jubilee Year.)
Hudson believes that the principle should be carried out today in order to deal with the problem of massive debt, which many Americans and the government itself are struggling with. Democratic presidential candidates who are calling for the forgiveness of student loan debts, for example, are thinking along the same lines.
From Ben Holland’s review of Hudson’s book in Bloomberg, A 5,000-Year-Old Plan to Erase Debts Is Now a Hot Topic in America. (Notice how Holland–unlike Hudson–credits Babylon rather than the Bible!):
In ancient Babylon, a newly enthroned king would declare a jubilee, wiping out the population’s debts. In modern America, a faint echo of that idea — call it jubilee-lite — is catching on.
Support for write-offs has been driven by Democratic presidential candidates. Elizabeth Warren says she’d cancel most of the $1.6 trillion in U.S. student loans. Bernie Sanders would go further -– erasing the whole lot, as well as $81 billion in medical debt. . . .
The idea that debt can grow faster than the ability to repay, until it unbalances a society, was well understood thousands of years ago, according to Michael Hudson, an economist and historian. Last year he published “And Forgive Them Their Debts,’’ a study of the Near East in biblical times and even earlier. That’s where the tradition known as a “jubilee” — wiping the debt-slate clean — has its roots.
Rulers weren’t motivated by charity, Hudson says. They were being pragmatic — trying to make sure that citizens could meet their own needs and contribute to public projects, instead of just laboring to pay creditors. And it worked, he says. “Societies that canceled the debts enjoyed stable growth for thousands of years.’’
OK, those of you who believe the Bible should be our guide for national policy, are you in favor of implementing the Year of Jubilee? For an effort to do just that, go here.
If wholesale cancelling of debt rubs you the wrong way, aren’t you going against the Bible?
First of all, the Levitical Law was just for the ancient Israelites. Those laws no longer apply. It is misusing God’s Word to use the Bible as not a rulebook for earthly governments.
Also, the Year of Jubilee was given for a completely different economic system than the one we have now. The ancient Israelites did not have a financial system, as such; rather, the economy was based on land. The Jubilee year prevented any kind of fee-simple purchase of land, which must remain with the family to whom it had been assigned. The land could, though, be, in effect, leased out. Instead of ruining those who bought land or, by extension, lent money, the Levitical system built in the Jubilee Year into the pricing:
14 And if you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. 15 You shall pay your neighbor according to the number of years after the jubilee, and he shall sell to you according to the number of years for crops. 16 If the years are many, you shall increase the price, and if the years are few, you shall reduce the price, for it is the number of the crops that he is selling to you. . . .
47 “If a stranger or sojourner with you becomes rich, and your brother beside him becomes poor and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner with you or to a member of the stranger’s clan, 48 then after he is sold he may be redeemed. One of his brothers may redeem him, 49 or his uncle or his cousin may redeem him, or a close relative from his clan may redeem him. Or if he grows rich he may redeem himself. 50 He shall calculate with his buyer from the year when he sold himself to him until the year of jubilee, and the price of his sale shall vary with the number of years. The time he was with his owner shall be rated as the time of a hired worker. 51 If there are still many years left, he shall pay proportionately for his redemption some of his sale price. 52 If there remain but a few years until the year of jubilee, he shall calculate and pay for his redemption in proportion to his years of service. 53 He shall treat him as a worker hired year by year. He shall not rule ruthlessly over him in your sight. (Leviticus 25)
Debt forgiveness schemes today can defraud the banks, their depositors, and taxpayers who have lent their money in good faith to the debtors. Yes, our current law allows for debt with the mechanism of bankruptcy. But, in general, we also need to uphold the Bible’s moral principle, which unlike the ceremonial and theocratic laws does still apply, of “Thou shalt not steal.”
This is not to say that we may not apply certain principles of the Jubilee Year. God’s Word gives us not just law but gospel. Reading the Bible discloses Christ.
The Bible itself uses the description of the Jubilee Year to prophecy the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah proclaims,
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord‘s favor, (Isaiah 61:1-2)
This is the very Scripture that Jesus reads in the synagogue at the beginning of His ministry, saying, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
And in this eternal Jubilee of Christ’s Kingdom, our debts–not just our monetary debts, but what we owe God for the transgressions of our sinfulness–really are forgiven. Not because God just waves them away but because, as Leviticus 25 says, “One of his brothers may redeem him” (25: 48). The Second Person of the Trinity, who became our brother in His incarnation, has bought us out of slavery. He “has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death” (Small Catechism, Second Article of the Creed).
Some might think, you are taking a wonderful social justice institution from Scripture and spiritualizing! I maintain that the spiritual is the primary meaning and the institution is the tangible symbol of that.